There aren’t too many anymore. The friendly family home town shoe store has become a vanishing breed in many areas. Princeton is lucky to have Hulit’s Shoes, a downtown mainstay since 1929, as part of its vibrant Nassau Streetscape.
Celebrating an 85th anniversary is a major moment in the life of a business, and the fact that Hulit’s is a family business makes it even more special.
Opened by Warren Hulit, it has been “All in the Family” ever since. His children, Ralph, Pete, Clara, Nellie, and Lillian were all involved in the store, and another son, Gus, owned The Cummins Shop, a former Princeton gift shop. Today, Clara’s son, Chuck Simone and his wife Phyllis, are the owners of Hulit’s.
The Simones’ son Ryan is also on staff full-time, representing the fourth generation of Hulit family members in the store.
“I worked in the store after school, and on weekends,” recalls Chuck Simone, “and my father Charlie Simone was also at the store. A lot of my cousins worked here too.”
In addition, generations of customers from the same family have been loyal patrons. Kids who got their first baby shoes at Hulit’s now have children or grandchildren also getting their shoes at the store.
“We have very loyal customers. Generations of people. Fourth and even fifth generations of customers come,” says Mr. Simone. “We carry a product that people need, and service is very important here. We fit the foot. This is a major focus at Hulit’s, and is something we have always done. We help customers find the right shoe.”
Princeton has had its share of celebrities, who also need shoes and the right fit. One of the Hulit family’s most cherished memories was the opportunity to fit the feet of the town’s resident genius, Albert Einstein, in 1952.
According to a Time Magazine report, Professor Einstein’s secretary called the store, requesting an emergency house call. Dr. Einstein’s feet hurt, and he suspected ill-fitting shoes. Partner Pete Hulit arrived at 112 Mercer Street with a foot measurer, and a few pairs of shoes. Professor Einstein, attempting to find the source of his discomfort, had sketched a diagram of his shoes, indicating the pattern of foot pressure. One labeled “bad” identified pressure on the outside of his foot.
Mr. Hulit decided that Einstein needed larger shoes. A pair of black shoes were comfortable, and the famous physicist signed his name to his shoe drawing, and gave it to Pete Hulit.
Shoe styles have undergone dramatic changes since Einstein’s day, and Hulit’s has seen trends come and go. One that seems here to stay is the public’s demand for comfortable footwear. Indeed, comfort is key.
Comfort as an issue has been around for a number of years now, reports Mr. Simone, and it is evidenced in the big selection of walking shoes, athletic shoes of all kinds, clogs, sandals, and dress shoes with comfort features.
“The emphasis on comfort is one of the biggest changes I have seen in the shoe business, he says. “Also, the idea of comfort was in all areas of dress, not just shoes,” he adds. “When I first worked here, we always wore jackets and ties. It’s much more informal today.”
Customers will have no trouble finding a comfortable fit at Hulit’s. A full range of styles and brands in all categories is available for men, women, and children of all ages, including infants.
Choices for children are more abundant than ever. Athletic shoes are popular for kids too. Geox sneakers are favorites for boys and girls, and a very popular line now is Tsukihoshi from Japan, notes Mr. Simone. “Kids love them. The sneakers are machine-washable, and they have a great fit.”
New Balance, Saucony, and that old favorite Converse also offer athletic footwear for children, and the longtime Sperry Topsiders continue to be in demand for boys and girls alike.
“Mary Janes” have never gone out of style for little girls, and they are available from Primigi. The Kio Trend line, with its leather lined styles is popular for girls, and Kenneth Cole also offers dress shoes for girls.
Penny loafers for boys are still favored, and laced dress shoes are also available.
Winter boots will soon be in stock, including the ever popular Uggs, as well as well as several brands with Gortex for waterproofing.
New Balance and Saucony offer a complete array of athletic shoes for men and women, and all are big sellers at the store. Tennis, cross-training, running, and walking shoes are available, with running styles the most popular.
Tennis shoes are important too, and as Mr. Simone points out, “Not all shoe stores carry tennis shoes today, and we have a good selection.”
The Sperry Topsider line of boat shoe styles are also a favorite among many male and female customers.
In keeping with the focus on comfort, flats continue to be in demand for many women. “We have flats of all kinds,” reports Mr. Simone. “Both dressy and casual, ‘Stretchies’, which are flexible with a comfort sole. We have a lot of European shoes, including L’Amour Des Pieds from France, Waldlaufer from Germany, and we also carry BeautiFeel, a very popular women’s line from Israel. The shoes are all leather-lined, many with foam inner sole. They are very high quality, both durable and flexible, and available in heels and flats.”
Clarks continues to be a best seller at Hulit’s for men and women, with many styles, from casual to dress. All have comfort features.
“Ecco is another line for men and women, and it is all comfort footwear. You can walk 20 blocks in New York City with these shoes,” says Mr. Simone.
Picolinos offers popular fashion ankle boots for women, as does La Canadienne from Canada, which also has a line of tall boots. SpringStep also has a line of dress/casual shoes and boots for women. Boots are a big deal in footwear today, and not just to withstand winter weather. In many cases, they are a fashion statement.
When winter does arrive, however, Hulit’s will be ready. Sheepskin-lined Uggs and Kamik boots from Canada?, among others, will keep the toes toasty.
Women (and some men) still like clogs, which continue to be available in a wide variety of choices. Dankso, Birkenstock, and Haflinger (noted for its wool clogs and slippers) are among the popular brands.
Men certainly look for comfort these days too, and Hulit’s has many options for them, from dressy to casual. Clarks is a mainstay, as is Johnston & Murphy for dress shoes with a leather sole.
The slip-on dress shoe with a tassel, and the penny loafer from Bass Weejun are always in style, and there is still a call for those time-honored “Bucks” in dusty tan and white.
Hiking boots from Merrell are an important line at the store, and there is a variety of men’s boots for all seasons.
Slippers and socks are other big sellers, with SmartWool the most popular line of socks for the entire family. Available in many colors and designs, these socks are a “must have” for many customers.
Slippers from Uggs, Minnetonka, and Acorn are favorites, and in all categories, color is a big factor today. In particular, women’s shoes display a blaze of color, and this is true in men’s athletic shoes as well.
“We go to shows and keep up-to-date on the latest trends and styles,” reports Mr. Simone. “Everything changes, and many of our customers come in two to three times a year or more for shoes, and we always try to have what they want. We offer a lot of personal attention — we stress service and a friendly face. We want to help people get the shoes they want. I think people like the way they are treated here.
“I really enjoy the people who come in,” he continues. “There is such an interesting variety of people, and many have become friends over the years. We look forward to offering them the best service, and we want to see the store and the family tradition continue.”
In addition to its annual summer and winter sales, Hulit’s offers regular weekend specials.
Located at 142 Nassau Street, the store is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday until 7, Saturday until 5:30, Sunday 12 to 4. (609) 924-1952. Website: www.hulitsshoes.com.